After losing a loved one to COVID-19, families of the incarcerated throughout the California prison system must bear the cost of burying their loved ones, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a pretty disgusting policy,” said attorney Michael Bien, who represents many California prisoners about their families having to foot the bill to bury them.
The families are not the ones that committed the crimes, Bien added, according to the article.
Under current policy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, all burial services and costs are the family’s responsibility. The state pays only if the body is considered unclaimed; then the individual will be cremated.
Most of the grieving families feel that they are the ones being punished for the COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths inside California’s prisons. The families have to come up with the money to get their loved ones’ remains released to them. They are billed for the shipment of the body to a local mortuary and the burial site, which all adds-up, said Bien.
“Nobody has money in our family,” said Beverly Vargas, whose brother Steve García died of the virus while serving his sentence in Avenal State Prison. “Everybody’s been up all night, trying to figure out where to get the money to bury him. …I mean, we’ll do whatever it takes—a car wash or whatever we have to do to get the money.”
Garcia’s burial cost more than $16,000 to be buried at the family plot. The family had to rely on a GoFundMe page to raise the money, said the article. García died July 24. Vargas expressed her frustration with CDCR and the hospital. She and her relatives called the hospital repeatedly, but all their calls went to voicemail. She said she only heard from the prison at the initial phone call about her brother. She said the prison didn’t give her any information on his condition or how to visit him while he was hospitalized. Garcia’s other family members traveled to the hospital from Arizona to gain answers.
“You’re fighting tooth and nail to get anybody to answer you,” Vargas told the Chronicle.
Another widow, Tracy Henson, received a $900 cremation bill informing her of the cost if she wanted to claim her husband Melford Henson’s remains.
Melford was housed in the California Institution for Men in Chino. He died in May, but was scheduled to parole at the end of this year, said the August Chronicle article. Melford contracted the coronavirus in April. He was hospitalized and was placed on a ventilator; he died shortly thereafter.
Tracy Henson was informed that if she didn’t want her husband’s remains, her husband would be considered “unclaimed” and the state would pay, but his ashes would be scattered at sea, said the article.
“I cried my eyes out,” said Henson. “I don’t have that kind of money sitting around,” Henson paid some of the bill with her stimulus check and Melford’s sister agreed to pay the rest, said the article.
“I wanted the ashes at my home,” said Henson, about her husband. “And I have them now. They’re right next to my bed.”
The Chronicle obtained an itemized bill for $1,807.57 from another grieving family member, who also lost a brother at CIM due to COVID-19. The bill was sent from a funeral home in San Diego. The bill listed: $695 for Transfer of Remains to the Funeral Home, $195 for Cremation Fee, $295 for Refrigeration, $140 Charge for Direct Cremation, and another $195 for Mailing of Cremated Remains.
“I just want to be at peace,” said the family member, who didn’t want to be named to the Chronicle.
All Caring Cremations, a firm in Van Nuys, has a contract with the CIM prison. The company just picks up the bodies and temporarily stores them. They don’t perform burial services, chief operations officer Alex Matthews told the Chronicle.
CDCR said it tries to help the families of the deceased as much as possible.
“It is our highest priority to respect the traditional and religious beliefs of the loved ones of the incarcerated person who have passed away while in CDCR custody,” department spokeswoman Dana Simas told the Chronicle. “We offer families the ability to provide the burial and funeral arrangements according to their own values and traditions.”
The department is not required to reimburse the family for any expenses, but the law does allow them to seize any funds that were on the deceased person’s institutional accounts for payment towards burial or cremation, said the article.
Arkansas is the only state that offers assistance to families who cannot pay for their loved ones’ remains. The Arkansas Department of Corrections cremates the body and ships the remains for free to the family, said Cindy Murphy, a department spokeswoman to the Chronicle.
Families, advocates and attorney Bien vow to start litigation on the issue to the Legislature and the governor’s office. They say the policy is cruel and discriminates against those who do not have the money for sudden bills, said the article.
“This is basic human decency here,” said Bien.